Kevin Hackett wonders whether a big, heavy Bentley can really be set up for the track and for everyday use.
Bruiser or grand tourer?
Extreme: it's a word being bandied around a lot by Bentley at the moment and, for now at least, it's nothing to do with hard times. Extreme is how the company is describing its latest, possibly greatest creation - the Continental Supersports. If ever a car had the perfect name it's the Bentley Continental GT. A true GT car is one that cossets its occupants, able to cover huge distances with great speed in serene comfort, quiet and with a sense of luxurious space. The Continental moniker adds the sense that you can use it for a cross-Continent dash when you feel like it and the car delivers in spades. I can't think of anything I'd rather use for a long journey - it's unflappable, regal - the epitome of a Grand Tourer.
So, just to turn things on their head, Bentley has taken the GT out of the Continental. The Supersports is, according to the company, a brave step into relatively unknown territory and even a cursory glance through the specification is enough to confirm that this will be a very different animal. But is it extreme in the true sense of the word? Well, it's extremely quick. In fact it is the fastest, most powerful production Bentley ever, but there's much more to this monster vehicle than mere numbers. Those numbers are impressive enough, mind you: 621-horsepower, a 0-60mph sprint time of just 3.7 seconds and an official top speed of 204mph (326kph). In reality you could add another 10mph onto that but Bentley likes to play things down a little.
The Continental GT is the car that saved Bentley. It was an instant icon - unique in a sea of amorphous, androgynous motor cars with its distinctively masculine profile and undeniable road presence. The new Supersports tries to recapture the spirit of the 1930s Blower yet showcases technology never before seen in a production supercar. Strictly a two-seater, this car eschews the grand touring character of the standard Continental GT, with a very distinctive "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough" attitude. It's set apart from its normal brethren with a few visual tweaks. Twin vents in the bonnet dispel the huge heat generated by the W12 engine, there are menacing vertical slashes in the new front bumper to force feed cooling air, the rear track is slightly wider and the wheel arches are slightly more flared, there are new wheels and a subtly different rear end.
New paint finishes are available too, with a couple of matt finishes that really do look good but are a pain to keep clean once greasy fingers are about. But it's the interior that really shows Bentley's intent here. While the exterior does provide visual clues as to this model's identity, a peek through the window will soon confirm suspicions. In place of the rear seats there's a shelf complete with a carbon fibre luggage restraining beam. The polished wood veneers have given way to carbon fibre panels and the trim is grippy, lightweight Alcantara as opposed to plush leather hides. The two remaining seats are now carbon fibre-backed bucket items normally found in serious sports cars. This is Bentley but not as we know it.
The company says it was serious about losing weight with the Supersports. So I'm somewhat surprised to see that the door glass, for instance, is still double glazed. It may have been unfair to expect Bentley to come up with a lightweight sports car in the spirit of a 911 GT3 but I still think there's more that could be done here. So Bentley is pushing the boundaries, at least with the interior design of this car. Yet it's also putting environmental awareness up there on the agenda, running as it does on both petrol and E85 biofuel. The jury's still out on the merits or otherwise of renewable fuels and the Supersports does still emit wince-inducing levels of CO2 but the production of the fuel itself pollutes far less. "Well-to-wheel" is the current buzzword for showing the benefits of renewable fuels like this and Bentley has invested significant sums of money and time in getting the system right.
It's clever stuff too. You can run the car on either fuel or a mix of the two in any ratio. Sensors in the fuel system constantly calculate what the mix is and adjust the engine management system to keep the big W12 firing on all cylinders. There's simply no discernible difference in the way the car runs, no matter what's in the fuel tank. The engineering that has gone into making this happen is quite astonishing and it won't be long before the rest of Bentley's fleet will be so equipped.
Despite being 110kg lighter than the Continental GT Speed, the Supersports still weighs over two tons. And it was the weight that really killed the feel of the Continental, leaving the impression that you were piloting a luxury cruise liner rather than a supercar. It wallowed in the bends and the driver felt remote from what was going on, cocooned in a leather and timber-lined cockpit. It was nice. It just wasn't sporting in the Bentley tradition of old.
On the public highway there are immediately apparent differences between this and other Continentals. The steering has been retuned and it's exquisite, offering delicacy at slow speeds yet meatiness once you put your foot down - brilliant stuff. The exhaust's deep bass note bellows throughout the cabin once you squeeze the throttle like a superhero tearing open his shirt to reveal the bulging muscles underneath. It's a gloriously macho soundtrack and it accompanies truly astonishing acceleration.
This car is fitted with a new "Quickshift" transmission that takes half the time to swap cogs that other Bentleys do and it enables double downshifts too. I still cannot stand the paddles behind the wheel though, and keep trying to use them to indicate or put on the wipers. Far better to leave it in auto and revel in the savage power reserves that are constantly available. The roads in Spain, where Bentley has brought us to sample the Supersports, aren't really big enough to contain this car's performance so we're taken to the new Monteblanco racing circuit just outside Seville. Previously the only time you'd see a Continental GT at a race track would be in the car park but Bentley is keen to put its money where its mouth is and show us just what this thing can do when pushed hard.
The torque from the four-wheel drive transmission is split 60/40 in favour of the rear wheels and Bentley says that they've allowed a little more slip from the traction control so we should feel like we're in a proper sports car. Before long I'm squeezing my hamster cheeks into a crash helmet and heading out on track by myself. Pulling out of the pit lane, the feeling is quite surreal. I'm about to light up the tyres of a two-tonne Bentley -
As I familiarise myself with the circuit's layout I push harder. Soon I'm clipping apexes and stamping on the astonishing brakes before powering out of tight corners like I'm in a Lamborghini Gallardo. Tyres start screeching and plumes of smoke are left in the Bentley's wake. But no matter how retuned the suspension is here, they simply cannot disguise the fact that this thing is so heavy. It still pitches about and looks more dramatic from outside that it feels within but brute force aside, I would get way more enjoyment here from a GT3 or a Lotus.
So I'm left slightly confused. The Supersports does bring a raft of improvements to a car that had not much wrong with it in the first place but it's only extreme in certain regards. I wanted it to feel lighter, sound louder, but Bentley says that's really not what the brand is about. It's a brave step, no doubt, and I applaud its flex fuel technology. But I think if it was my money I'd buy a normal Continental and, with the significant chunk of change, get myself a Caterham for the track: the best of both worlds. email@example.com